A student team of economics majors from UT Pan American topped 21 other university teams nationwide to win first prize in the 2014 Up to Us competition designed to educate, engage and inspire action on the challenges the nation faces from the rising long-term national debt - now at $17.5 trillion.
The team's captain, Fabiola Urgel, an UTPA international student from Mexico, said she didn't believe it at first when she got the call that UTPA had won. She described meeting a former U.S. President and taking a picture with a past First Lady as an "amazing" experience.
"I was able to talk to both Hillary and Bill Clinton. We talked about the merger (UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville) and he talked about his excitement about the merger and UTPA on stage. When I started to cry, Hillary gave me a hug and told me that UTPA and Mexico loved me. Bill Clinton later told me he was inspired by my speech," Urgel said.
In a press release from the Up to Us organizers, Bill Clinton said the competition has proven that young people are passionate about raising awareness regarding the nation's economic challenges.
"As the winning team from The University of Texas-Pan American has demonstrated, these students have good ideas and a unique perspective," Clinton said in the release.
UTPA's team - all members of the Economics Society at UT Pan American - and adviser Dr. James Boudreau, associate professor in the Department of Economics and Finance, were ecstatic about their victory. The team's members also include Luis Basurto, Christopher Villarreal, Carlos Aguayo and Edna Pulido.
The UTPA team outperformed those from UT Austin, Duke, New York University and Northwestern, among others. The competition entries were judged by Chelsea Clinton, vice chair of the Clinton Foundation; Kent Conrad, former U.S. senator; Bitty Liu, journalist and anchor of Bloomberg TV's "In the Loop"; Olympia Stowe, former U.S. senator and senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center; and George Stephanopoulos, anchor of ABC TV's "This Week" and "Good Morning America."
The team said the judges particularly cited the creativity of UTPA's campaign and their outreach efforts to the community for the win.
"It was through our creativity that I believe we found favor in the sight of the panel and it has been through our creativity that I believe our community is now more informed and ready to take action," said Villarreal, who indicated the $10,000 prize would go back into the Economics Society budget to help inform more Rio Grande Valley citizens.
The campaign included a kick off with speaker State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa and University leaders, visits to 15 high schools where they talked about fiscal issues to parents and more than 500 students, the presentation of an original play about the national debt, visiting flea markets and low-income neighborhoods where they went door to door and distributed information about the national debt in both English and Spanish and also hosted a barbeque. An original video they produced as required in the competition included a family of outer space aliens who were learning the consequences of unending borrowing. The team's publicity efforts included social media and TV appearances, among other tactics to drive people to view the video and to a national Up to Us site to take a brief quiz on knowledge about the debt.
"I thought people really didn't care about the national debt and that we would be met with indifference. But if there is indifference, that is because of lack of knowledge," said Pulido, who is also a political science major. "When they have the information, they really want a solution and want to participate. The thing this competition is really about is collective action. We ignited an interest in the national debt here in the Valley."
Their adviser Boudreau, whose first child, daughter Eleanor, was born March 13 - the day he heard the team had won - called the victory a fairy tale ending.
"The underdog team who worked the hardest came out on top," he said.
Boudreau said the team focused on educating people so that they'd be aware of what each of the many possible answers to the national question might entail in terms of consequences rather than taking a stance as to what the "right" answer to the issue of the national debt might be. He said the team also learned more than just academic knowledge about the national debt.
"They learned how to work successfully as a team," Boudreau said. "They learned how to rely on one another. They learned to communicate consistently and effectively. Winning first prize is amazing, but for the rest of their lives I know that these students will be better equipped to work toward any goal."
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen called the students unbelievably creative and talented.
"With this project, they were able to present both the negative and positive arguments against and for the deficit without taking sides. They are true teachers," Nelsen said.
Calling the whole experience surreal, Basurto, who was the team's promotion guru, said he and his peers are returning from Phoenix as "change makers." He praised Boudreau's guidance and UTPA administrators and student organizations as well as several colleges on campus and activity sponsors for their support. Aguayo, dubbed the "voice of reason" for the team, described the competition as an important learning experience that brought him invaluable friendships.
"I believe this is what the college experience is all about - learning skills, helping the community, building friendships and making an impact," he said.